Dirk Sanders & Rachel Kehoe: Greenland rolling is an art

The techniques associated with the traditional kayak, once known as the “hunter’s boat,” including the notable Greenland Rolling, have survived to this day thanks to people such as Dirk Sanders and Rachel Kehoe. The founders of How We Roll are professional instructors and experts in the Greenlandic art of paddling, possessing excellent personalities with unlimited energy and knowledge, which they pass on to their students. This age-old tradition is directly intertwined with modern sea kayaking, and we have the pleasure of hosting them in a comprehensive interview about kayaking and the art of the roll!

SEGT: Dirk and Rachel, it has already been almost four years since we first met in person at the rolling workshop we organized in Evia, Greece. It was a fantastic experience for all of us as we learned new techniques, improved existing ones, and had a genuinely great time. What sparked your interest in sea-kayaking and, specifically, Greenland rolling?

Dirk & Rachel: Thank you, we had such an amazing time in Evia. You guys were incredibly welcoming, and we were really impressed by the progress the group made in the short time! To answer the question: seakayaks are amazing vehicles to explore the coastline, enjoy nature, challenge yourself and meet likeminded people. Seeing people out at sea with their kayaks along the beautiful Cornish coast was the initial spark. We started our journey as seakayakers using Euroblade paddles, but after a couple of years we discovered Greenland rolling and paddling thanks to Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson. Many things that had been not quite logical before suddenly fell into place. The smile that people have on their face after learning their first Greenland roll should be enough explanation why this art is so fascinating.

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“We find that a person’s progression on many other skills is much faster – for example edging because if you fall in when you take it a little too far, you’re able to simply roll up.”

SEGT: What does sea kayaking mean to you? What are the aspects of this sport that fascinate you the most?

Dirk & Rachel: Seakayaking is such a multifaceted activity, ranging from paddling skills and handling the boat in various conditions, to navigation and leadership. With the right skill level seakayaks are incredibly seaworthy. One of our favorites is in playing in the surf, where the environment becomes the teacher in a very playful way (when you choose the right location). We also love long days on the water, especially when you’re joined by amazing wildlife like basking sharks, minkie whales or dolphins, or when a seal hops on your boat for a ride. The tired feeling at the end of a long day is something special. It’s also a great place to spend time with friends.

SEGT: The roll is often considered the most advanced technique in sea kayaking due to its difficulty and impressive spectacle. However, only a small percentage of paddlers are able to execute it properly. In your opinion, do you think it is necessary for sea-kayakers to learn how to roll? Alternatively, can they still enjoy paddling safely by using other self-rescue techniques in place of the roll?

Dirk & Rachel: There are many ways of getting yourself back in your boat after a capsize. Rolling is by far the quickest way, reducing your time in cold water. Not getting separated from your boat is also a huge safety advantage. Although especially useful when solo paddling, as you don’t need assistance to get back in your boat, rolling also increases the safety of a group as someone with a solid roll can look after themselves.

When you learn to roll your kayak first this means you have far more confidence with boat handling in general. We find that a person’s progression on many other skills is much faster – for example edging because if you fall in when you take it a little too far, you’re able to simply roll up.

Greenland rolling is an art and learning all those different ways of rolling will make the kayaker independent and adaptable to new situation they may encounter. But it is also demanding in the sense that we need to keep our bodies flexible and strong and practice regularly.

But that’s not to say if you don’t have a roll you shouldn’t paddle, a solid self-rescue to getting back into your kayak is still the skill that every paddler should have.

SEGT: From your experience, is it advisable for someone to start learning the roll early on in their kayaking journey, or should they first focus on mastering other techniques such as the forward stroke, maneuvers, and various braces before dedicating themselves to learning the roll?

Dirk & Rachel: People should feel comfortable in their kayaks first, because if someone feels unstable when upright it is hard to learn rolling. However, that is often achieved in a few sessions and after that rolling should be encouraged, but in a safe environment. And then rolling can be taught and practiced alongside other skills.

SEGT: Recently there has been a growing and passionate group of kayakers who favor Greenland paddles. Why do you think this is the case? Furthermore, do you believe that Greenland paddles offer any advantages over Euroblades, particularly for older paddlers or those with joint injuries?

Dirk & Rachel: People are curious to try out “new” things and may want to reflect on the traditions. From what we hear on out courses, it is the different feel of the paddle in the water and the smoother transition between the different parts of the stroke. But in general, Greenland paddles and Euroblade paddles are two different tools that can be used for the same purpose – kayaking. It is a very personal choice that is often influenced by the social context and a paddlers interest. As often with sport we really should reflect on why we are doing certain things. Do we need to paddle like someone who is competing at a high level, is that appropriate for the activity we are engaging? And is that even a healthy and sustainable way to paddle? We unfortunately see a lot of kayakers on courses that have shoulder injuries, that could have been avoided.

There has been a general trend of people finding beauty in the traditional. And we think that Greenland paddles are a thing of beauty, as well as a fantastic tool. You can easily get very interested in the history behind these paddles, how the environment they were developed in shaped their design and construction.

SEGT: If someone is accustomed to using a Euroblade, how challenging is it for them to adapt to a Greenland paddle and adjusting their technique accordingly?

Dirk & Rachel:  We would suggest give it some time and explore! People are often put off from the first feeling of the Greenland paddle, because they expect it to be similar to a Euroblade paddle. However, most people will find a way to make a Greenland paddle work for them – without any specific coaching. That doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects that can speed up this process and make the Greenland paddle stroke more efficient. It is the awareness that the blade has a fundamentally different shape by being long and narrow.

This has some consequences how we should use the paddle. The technique used most often is the “Canted stroke”, where the paddle is entering the water with leading edge and the power in the stroke comes in when the blade is fully immerged into the water. This means we tend to keep the paddle longer in the water, even behind the hip. We think that independent of the technique, the feel for the paddle during the stroke is the important driver for efficient technique. Therefore, we suggest playing, experimenting, and trusting that it has worked for the Inuit kayakers who used this tool for hunting.

SEGT: Suppose someone is interested in learning the art of rolling and is looking to purchase a kayak. In that case, what specific features or aspects would you suggest they should consider before making their selection?

Dirk & Rachel:  Connectivity to your kayak is crucial. While rolling a Greenland kayak is incredible because it feels so easy and the kayak response to subtle body movements, many standard sea kayaks are also excellent for rolling. A low back deck and comfortable seat for layback rolls, good fit and enough room to bend forward for forward finishing rolls are all important considerations. Ask yourself first how far to you want to take rolling: paddle rolls, hand rolls, or even further? Further do you want to apply the rolling to rough water, in that case you may what to choose a rough water kayak that is comfortable to roll. As a bonus flat bottom in a kayak is nice for forward finishing rolls. Essentially paddle and roll a kayak before you buy it, then you will know if it’s the right one!

SEGT: Dirk and Rachel, thank you. We look forward to seeing you again soon in Greece and Cyprus for some time in the water! One final question: what has been your most beautiful or memorable kayaking experience to date?

Dirk & Rachel:  We’d absolutely love to see you again! On one night paddle we had the most amazing encounter with dolphins playing around our kayaks and there was bioluminescence as well, what could be better than being surrounded by glow in the dark dolphins?